Monday, November 28, 2022

Hair stylist at the Cancer Infusion Station

Lorna of the luxurious brown hair. The first time I saw her. Not a streak of grey in it. I knew it wouldn't last because she's right here in the Cancer Infusion Center waiting room. This is where hair goes to die so the patient can live even if it's a little bit longer. Lorna hasn't yet stopped at my station to talk about styling options or maybe a wig; we have orange and blue ones. Stylin' scarves too, and caps with funny sayings, funny to all of us anyway, women of the lost hair -- yeah me too, and mine grew back curly and seal brown with silver tips. "Kissed by the sun, I said. "Touch of grey" said my husband, a Jerry Garcia fan. "I will get by," the song goes. "I will survive." As the weeks went on I missed seeing Lorna and wondered if she'd given up. She finally came by, hair strands sticking up in a topknot and tied in a bow. Reminded me of Zippy the Pinhead from those days when hair meant everything. Lorna walked by alone, as always. "Like my hair?" She tended it with her right hand, twirled around so I could get a good look. We both laughed. I saw her weeks later, head shiny as a baby's bottom. "Just a comb-through," she said. I held up a bare hand. "Got my comb right here." For the first time, she cast her burden aside and sat in my chair. I massaged her scalp with some feel-good ointment that smells of lavender and vanilla. I feel the ridges of her skull beneath the hairless skin. Cancer started in her breasts -- they've been banished the damn troublemakers. Lorna and I reminisced about the touching that went with them. When done right, it lit us up. My touch on her bald head is one small thing, a tiny pleasure. Small things are what's left when the big things go.

Friday, November 18, 2022

You will forget things, micro-essay

You will forget things. As you age, that’s the mantra you hear from people who think they know better. Nobody tells you this: you forget how to forget. The past rolls in like the Florida East Coast waves I once surfed. That’s me on my long board walking the nose on a wave spawned by a tropical storm. I am 16 and my shoulders already are scorched by the sun. I will be riding this wave as a 71-year-old living in Wyoming’s high prairie as my dermatologist burns off a rough patch birthed that day at the beach. I am 28 making love with my girlfriend in a Colorado mountain stream. The water so cold, our skin warms from the friction of our bodies. Do you remember…starts my wife, 66, the one from the stream, and I say I cannot forget and it seems like the right thing to say but what I really mean is there is no way that I can forget, that even if we had split up during the awful times that we want to forget I could not forget how, in the shade of quaking aspens, the sunlight vibrated across your skin, your blue eyes on me. My last thoughts will be of waves and water, you and me. I will not and cannot forget. That’s old age, the truth of it.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Grandma and Grandpa were in France on November 11, 1918, when the guns grew silent

World War 1’s Meuse-Argonne offensive began on Sept. 26, 1918, and halted with the announcement of the Armistice on Nov. 11. It was the largest in U.S. military operation in history with 1.2 million American soldiers. Deadliest, too, with more than 350,000 casualties on all sides and 26,277 U.S. deaths. Many of the troops were inexperienced which probably added to the casualties. The so-called Spanish Flu was raging at the time which swelled the ranks of the soldiers being treated at American Expeditionary Force hospitals.

My grandfather, Lt. Raymond Shay of Iowa City was there serving with the Headquarters Troop, 88th Division, U.S. Army.

Late in the day on Nov. 11, 1918, my grandmother, Florence Green of Baltimore, was a U.S. Army nurse serving at Evacuation Hospital 8 in France. She and other medical staffers still were treating casualties of the Meuse-Argonne campaign and would be for some time. Armistice Day (later Veterans Day) didn't yet have a name but here’s the entry in her diary:

November 11: Am so happy tonight to think the war is really over. I cannot believe it. Haven’t heard a gun since 11am. Great celebrating everywhere. Can almost hear the city hall in Baltimore ringing, and what a wonderful time for Paris.

The next day was Nov. 12 and she was still in France. She finally arrived back in the States March 10, 1919. She met my grandfather at Army General Hospital 21 (later Fitzsimons Army Medical Center) in Aurora, Colo. Raymond and Florence were married in 1922 and their first grandson, me, arrived on the planet on Dec. 18, 1950. Their son, my father Thomas, served overseas in the follow-up war to end The War to End All Wars from 1942-46. My mother, Anna Hett, was trained as a U.S. Navy nurse at Denver’s Mercy Hospital but the war ended before she could be shipped overseas.

More wars followed.

Monday, November 07, 2022

"All Quiet on the Western Front" not the remake we expected

Some negative reviews have come in for Netflix's remake of  "All Quiet on the Western Front." They all say the same thing, that the movie is not loyal to the book. That's true -- it leaves out some crucial scenes and adds scenes between the German and French armistice-seekers on the war's closing days. Also, the ending. The famous butterfly ending of the 1930 movie vs. this version which takes its time settling Paul Baumer's life and the armistice. He dies and the camera lingers on his young face, so young and so dead. 

I read Erich Marie Remarque's novel in the sixth grade. It wasn't a class assignment. My father had a massive library and I had a library card as soon as I could walk. Dad's World War II collection was a doozy. "Guadalcanal Diary," Ernie Pyle's "Brave Men," Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe cartoons, "They Were Expendable," "PT109." He was a WWII veteran, an infantry radioman in France, Belgium, and Germany. He also had World War 1 books, probably because his mother and father both served in that war. I was entranced by the pilots of those rickety old airplanes. I was obsessed with the Lafayette Escadrille and the "The Red Baron" Richthofen's aerial battles. I read all Nordhoff and Hall books, as  both had been pilots in The Great War. I also read their Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. Even now, I equate their "The Falcons of France" with "Mutiny on the Bounty." Adventure books. Boys' books. They made me yearn to be a fighter pilot and Fletcher Christian. Only in my imagination.

I was a kid and really had no idea what I was reading about any war. As bodies piled up in books, I viewed that as part of the adventure. My viewpoint has changed over the decades. I never went to war, the one of my generation in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. I was 18 when I graduated high school in 1969. I never served in the military although I was in the Navy ROTC program for 18 months. I felt guilty about my lack of service for a long time, especially in the 1980s when Reagan told us we had licked the Vietnam Syndrome. I had Viet Vet friends. I had peacenik friends. I read a lot of books about Vietnam. There always some nagging sense that I had missed out on something. How odd that seems now. 

I reread "All Quiet" prior to watching the Netflix movie. I also rewatched the 1930 movie, released just a year after talkies appeared. The book and the movie both cover Paul's recruitment and his leave when he confronts those who were so eager to send him to war. They are at the heart of the book. Paul was subject to "the old lie" in Wilfred Owens' poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est." After recounting the deadly effects of a gas attack, Owen ends his poem with this:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.

That sentiment appears in the new "All Quiet on the Western Front." It just doesn't get the starring role I expected.  

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Saturday morning round-up

Election day is Tuesday. I will vote and keep my eyes open for those who would try to prevent it. As an election judge and poll watcher, I never actually feared the other side on election day. I hear tales of mid-term election judges being called in by the county clerk for briefings on what to expect on election day and what to do about it. I worked next to Republicans and we all were charged with staffing the first electronic voting machines used in the county. In the 2000s, there was a feeling by some Democrats that the e-voting machines were hooked up with the corporations who made them and they were beholding to the GOP. Both Dem and GOP election judges agreed that the system was secure. Now Republicans question the integrity of the process because their guy did not win in 2020 and their guy -- and FOX -- keep bitchin' about it. The most proactive thing we can do is vote and not let anyone keep us from our appointed task. 

Chris just went through her third round of chemo and is looking forward to the fourth and last infusion the day after Thanksgiving. We plan to give thanks on that day as our kids will both be there for the first time in a decade. The next day, Chris goes to the CRMC Cancer Center for the four-hour task. Then we can give thanks again that the chemo part of the treatment is gone and so is Chris's hair. She has a nifty new wig courtesy of the Center's gift shop. It's brown with red highlights which is kind of what my hair looked like before it turned white. She looks great in it and plans to show it off the next time she goes out in public. Yes, cancer sucks but it can also help you appreciate what you have instead of what you might eventually miss. 

I'm reading "Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age" by Annalee Newitz. Fascinating study of four lost cities: Catalhoyuk in Turkey, Pompeii in Italy, the Angkor civilization in Southeast Asia, and Cahokia of the Mississippian culture in the U.S. All advanced and crowded cities that disappeared. Not that exactly, but each of these advanced urban centers that were abandoned in different ways. We all know about Angkor Wat but that actually was a small and not very important monument in a much larger city. For five centuries, rulers built monuments to themselves but also nourished the working class that built them. Floods, drought, and mismanagement doomed the place although Cambodians still live in and around this tourist site but also spread out to inhabit all areas of the country and founded the bustling city of Phnom Penh. Early Western World explorers marveled at the site and wondered what the poor Khmer did to screw it up. Newitz explains that it was much more complicated than that and much more interesting. Cahokia is intriguing because it existed for so long and the site of an advanced culture is now East St. Louis which has a reputation of poverty and civic strife. So much of what Cahokia (1050-1350 CE) developed was geared not for the elite but for the populace of 30,000, which made in larger than most European cities of the time. This is why we read history books, right, to fill in the blanks of the things we do not know or thought we knew. Hats off to Newitz for her fine research and entertaining writing style.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

On Tuesday, don't vote us back to the Dark Ages


Something to think about as we face this important midterm election on Nov. 8. A Republican takeover of Congress dooms our democratic republic. VOTE!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Resistance is futile. Read The Three-Body Problem trilogy before it enters the Netflix universe

Have you ever heard the term “Dark Forest” in reference to one of the universe’s big mysteries?

I had not until I read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel about an astrophysicist’s dilemma that crosses space and time in “Bewilderment.” Then I came across a novel on Kindle called “The Dark Forest” by Chinese sci-fi writer Cixin Liu, Liu Cixin in Chinese as the last name is listed first.

This concept posits that the universe is the Dark Forest. Intelligent lifeforms are making their way through the forest and are afraid. There are other lifeforms out there but what are they like? Are they powerful but helpful giant octopus-like creatures in “Arrival.” Or are they savage multi-limbed killers as in “Independence Day,” the creeps who just want humans to “die.”

As lifeforms make their way through the Dark Forest, they don’t know what they’re going to find. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to shoot first and ask questions later rather than being ambushed themselves? Forget “Star Trek” and its non-interference directive. Those strange-looking bastards on the other side of the trees are dangerous and can’t be trusted. Our very existence is threatened. Fire!

This helps explain why Earth, after sending our radio and TV signals and Voyager space probes for the last 100 years, has been met with silence. Maybe others have picked up the signals, have investigated us further, and decided that we are killers, which we are, invaders that have wiped out entire civilizations all over the globe.

In Liu’s novel, second part of “The Three-Body Problem” trilogy, scientists have made first contact with extraterrestrials. Residents of Trisolaris answer the call. Trisolarans are telepaths so everyone on their planet knows what others are thinking. When told that Earthlings speak from their mouths and tend to hide their inner feelings, the aliens assume that we are keepers of dark secrets and are dangerous. They plan to eliminate us as soon as they can get their space fleet to our solar system in some 400 years. Humans begin to plan for the encounter. Wallfacers are selected to come up with ways to staunch the upcoming alien invasion. Some Earthlings secretly ally with the aliens as they believe the aliens just might be more sensible than their earthly neighbors. They also suspect that resistance is futile, as the Borg like to say.

I read it with a dose of dark humor as it is true that humankind is dangerous and can’t be trusted. If I was a Trisolaran, I would get to earth ASAP, before we perfect interstellar travel and keen new weapons and pursue them in the Dark Forest.

Interesting to see that Netflix is turning Liu’s trilogy into a series due out in 2023. The Netflix web site says the series will debut next year. Director is “True Blood’s” Alexander Woo with “Games of Thrones” writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In 2020, Netflix farmed out the English-language rights for the books which was only available in the original Chinese. So, if you choose, you can read the trilogy or get it on Kindle and start with the second book as I did. It can be a hard slog at times and wonderful in its moments.

I have read only two other trilogies in the sci-fi/fantasy category: “Lord of the Rings” and “Foundation.” Also, John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” trilogy. Dos Passos incorporates different points of view and newspaper snippets as he recounts his view of the U.S. in the post-World War I era. A neat blend of fiction and fact, a series ahead of its time. Eduardo Galeano and “Memory of Fire,” 500 years of Latin American history. Again, a wonderful mix of fact and fiction. Magical-realism is involved.

Do you have other trilogies to suggest?

If I may make a modest suggestion: start with book one when tackling a series. I’m pretty sure I missed out by starting in the middle.